Every so often, I am reminded that there is still a battle raging in the church world over whether or not women can serve in leadership positions in the church. And when I say ‘reminded’, I should say ‘surprised’. To me, this debate feels a little like asking whether a woman should be able to vote, or whether a woman is a human (given: the Bible doesn’t address the issue of women’s suffrage, so on this point I might be rightly accused of comparing apples to giraffes). Women who preach powerfully and teach the Bible with skill and accuracy have been a consistent feature of the landscape throughout my journey as a Christian. Priscilla Shirer, Joyce Meyer, Beth Moore, Devi Titus, Erma Contreras, Eva Rodriguez, Medina Pullings, RaeAnn Hyatt, Christina Beiser, my mother – all of these women have played a significant role in my life or the lives of people I know and respect.
But what about that passage in 1 Timothy (NLT)?
11 Women should learn quietly and submissively. 12 I do not let women teach men or have authority over them.[b] Let them listen quietly. 13 For God made Adam first, and afterward he made Eve. 14 And it was not Adam who was deceived by Satan. The woman was deceived, and sin was the result. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing,[c] assuming they continue to live in faith, love, holiness, and modesty.
The first thing I’d like to point out here is the footnotes. Whenever you see an ‘or’ in a footnote, that’s an indicator that when you get all of the most well-trained Bible translators and experts in ancient languages together, they can’t come to an agreement about exactly how a sentence should be translated. (This shouldn’t make us wonder whether our Bible translations are reliable, by the way. God has not left any of the foundational elements of our faith to question, as this particular case will demonstrate as we proceed.)
c. 2:15 Or will be saved by accepting their role as mothers, or will be saved by the birth of the Child.
I can’t really devote the space to working through each possible translation here. But if you do the substitutions yourself, you will see that the meaning of this passage can vary considerably depending on how you select from the options.
The second thing I would point out is that the Greek word αὐθεντεῖν that gets translated “have authority over” is what’s called a hapax legomenon (that’s just fancy language for: it only appears one time in the New Testament.) The fact is, ancient Greek isn’t spoken anymore. Some words have fallen out of use completely. Others have taken on considerably different shades of meaning from what they had 2,000 years ago. All you have to do is think about the line, “Don we now our gay apparel,” and you can immediately connect with the idea of how quickly language can change over a fairly short period of time. If you were born in the last 20 years (and have never sung Christmas carols or had a love-affair with Elizabethan poetry), you might have a difficult time interpreting this English sentence, even if English is your first language. However, if it were possible to thumb through your volume of Christmas carols (or Shakespeare) and find the word ‘don’ in several other places, you might be able to determine, from context, that the word means ‘wear’. Bible translators encounter this same challenge with words in the Bible – especially those that appear only one time. And they use precisely this same method in order to arrive at a determination about the meaning of these words. If there are no other occurrences of the word, it makes it difficult to settle on a definition. Christians generally avoid building a doctrine upon a single Bible verse. How much more then, should we take similar caution when establishing rules governing church leadership on the basis of a single verse the meaning of which is uncertain.
Next, we have to consider other passages of Scripture. In Philippians 4, Paul refers to women named Euodia and Syntyche as women who “worked hard with (him) in telling others the Good News” (4:3). In Biblical terms, these women are, at minimum, performing the role of evangelists. There’s nothing to suggest here that Paul only let Euodia and Syntyche do evangelism to women. If, as it seems, these women were proclaiming the Gospel to mixed crowds of men and women, then there is no way to describe their work as anything other than ministry, and their ministry as anything other than teaching men.
In Acts 18:26, Luke relates the story of Priscilla and Aquila as taking the apostle Barnabas aside and explaining the way of God to him more accurately. Again, there is no disputing the fact that Priscilla was involved in teaching Barnabas (it is also noteworthy that Priscilla is mentioned before her husband’s). Further, a more accurate explanation of the way of God is, by nature, a more authoritative explanation. This is no mere playing with words. Priscilla’s role in Barnabas’ life was not merely instructive, but one in which she was exercising authority.
In Romans 16:7, Paul asks the church to greet Andronicus and Junia, describing them as highly respected (or outstanding) among the apostles. Admittedly, there are plenty of variant translations of this verse that call into question what appears plain in the two options provided above: Andronicus and Junia (a woman) were apostles. In many of the earliest manuscripts available at the time of the older English translations, the name Junia read “Junias.” Adding the letter ‘s’ to the end of Junia is how you would theoretically ‘doctor’ a Roman name for a woman in order to change it to a man’s name. But there is absolutely no evidence in any ancient writings for a man being named Junias. The evidence is abundant, however, that there women in the Roman world with that name. The implications of this are clear: it didn’t take long before the church had become so male-dominated (conformed to the pattern of the culture) that the professional scribes who copied Bible manuscripts changed the name, presuming that Junia must have been a ‘typo’, because of course it would be unthinkable that a woman would have been an apostle. I do not have the linguistic skills to back up this hypothesis, but it is my opinion that Bible translations that read along the lines of, “Andronicus and Junia, who are well known to the apostles” (ESV) are operating with this same bias.
What gives me this confidence? Scripture. Not just a handful of isolated proof-texts, but the entire development that can be seen across the history of God’s people, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22.
In Acts 2:18-19 Peter quotes the prophet Joel where he says that in the last days, men and women, young and old, even servants will have visions, dream dreams, and prophesy. By the way, if you put ‘having visions, dreaming dreams, and prophesying’ on your resumé, what you are saying is: I am a prophet. In other words, all of the divisions in society: age and gender, wealth and position will be eliminated when the Spirit is given to God’s people. And it’s not just that everyone will be equal, it’s that all will be qualified as spokespeople for God – in other words: prophets. Spiritual leadership will no longer be determined by birth (as it was with priesthood and kingship) or via a special divine calling (as it was with prophets). In the era preceding the day when God finally and fully establishes His Kingdom, all of His people will be prophets. So now we have Scriptural grounds for women being apostles, evangelists, and prophets.
A few final examples: In 1 Corinthians 11:5, (speaking of hotly debated passages), Paul says that a woman should not prophesy with her head uncovered. Putting aside the issue of head covering for a moment*, note that Paul does not say that a woman should not prophesy. …which means that Paul anticipated that women would prophesy in church meetings. Paul refers to a woman named Phoebe as a deacon (Rom 16:4). Acts 16:40 at leasts raises the possibility that Lydia was the head of the church that met in her home.
So why would Paul allow a woman to prophesy in one place, and forbid her to teach a man in another? Was Paul confused? Did he change his mind, as some suggest? Is 1 Timothy written by someone other than Paul? You might now know this, but Paul often wrote letters to address specific problems in a church. 1 Corinthians is one of the best examples of this because Paul deals with so many problems; but you can detect problem-solving in just about every letter of Paul. Some people taught that non-Jewish Christians had to be circumcised to be saved. Some people were teaching that the resurrection from the dead had already happened. Others believed that the body and sex (even within marriage) were bad. Still others thought that the body didn’t matter at all anymore, since what was really important was the soul; as a result, they claimed they Christians could do anything they wanted (including ritualistic sex with temple prostitutes).
There is a clue in 2 Timothy to the problem that might have been going on in Ephesus, where Timothy was. In Chapter 4, Paul warns Timothy that some people are going to reject the truth, and accept as truth whatever it is that they want to hear. In Chapter 3 he describes what these people who reject the truth will be like:
For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that! (2 Tim 3:2-5).
(I guess the ancient Romans weren’t so different than 21st Century Americans!)
But look what Paul says next:
They are the kind who work their way into people’s homes and win the confidence of[a] vulnerable women who are burdened with the guilt of sin and controlled by various desires. 7 (Such women are forever following new teachings, but they are never able to understand the truth.)
It looks like it’s at least possible that in Ephesus, some false teachers (probably men!) were gaining a following among some of the vulnerable women in the community, and these women were attempting to elevate this false teaching above the true Gospel.
In a culture and era where women had virtually no standing in society, what do you suppose would make these women feel empowered to take authority over men? Passages like this one from Galatians provide some helpful context:
you are all children[m] of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes.[n] 28 There is no longer Jew or Gentile,[o] slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Even a passage like Colossians 3:18, which is referenced by feminists as an example of a supposed oppressive, male-dominated culture provides a surprising clue:
18 Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting for those who belong to the Lord.
Why would a woman who had no place in society need to be told to submit to her husband? Only if she had been told that in Christ, categories like gender, age, ethnicity, and social status no longer married – that ALL were ONE in Christ.
If we put all these passages together, a likely scenario emerges. Women have been empowered and given the status as equals with men in a way unprecedented in human history. Like many other implications of the Gospel for culture, this new fact was causing growing pains in the church community, and the teaching was being stretched to the point of abuse. Women in Ephesus who had embraced false teaching were attempting to use the liberty and equality they had in Christ to force this false teaching on the whole community. Paul was telling Timothy in no uncertain terms: put an end to it. In Corinth, by contrast, the problem was that everyone wanted to speak in tongues. In this case – the same case where Paul allows for a woman to prophesy – he says “I wish that you would all prophesy” (Moses says much the same thing in Numbers 11:29). It can hardly be concluded from the context that when Paul said “all” he meant “only the men”.
So Paul is not contradicting himself. He is correcting a corruption of his own teaching (in much the same way that James has to correct the abuse of Paul’s teaching on the relationship between faith and works – Romans 4 and James 2 are not contradicting each other. They are addressing the opposite misunderstandings of the same issue.)
The vast majority of evidence in the New Testament points to a situation where women were permitted to operate in positions of leadership and influence (even in the Old Testament, there are women prophets such as Hulda and leaders like Deborah. It is almost unimaginable that we would see a backward progression from the Old Testament to the New.) If we have one reference that goes against the grain of all of the others, and if there are significant difficulties interpreting/translating that reference, I think we are on safe ground if we assume that the dominant voice is the one that is faithful to the whole counsel of Scripture. The sensible thing to do with the passage that doesn’t seem to fit with the others, then, is to assume that there is a perfectly good explanation, a missing piece–whether linguistic or historical or both–which, if we had access to, would result in an understanding of this passage that echoes what we hear elsewhere in the Bible.
*Multiple passages in the New Testament can assist us in working through our difficulties with some practices that offend, or at least don’t fit with, our modern sensibilities: if everyone is equal before God, then why were slaves told to obey to their masters… why were women told to submit to their husbands? Or, as in 1 Corinthians 11:5, why are women restricted to prophesying with their heads covered? The truth is, the radical counter-cultural nature of the Gospel is still working its way through the cultures that have been influenced by it. It was recognized, from the earliest of times, that the extreme modifications to human relationships that Christianity brought with it had the potential to be offensive to the surrounding culture – to such an extent that those cultures might reject Christianity and/or consider it a threat to their way of life… which did happen, by the way. Just think about what would happen today if women in more conservative sectors of Islam suddenly decided to throw off their hijabs – not only that, but to throw them off and then parade into the men’s-only section of the Mosque to pray. For this same reason, the writers of the New Testament letters encouraged the churches to intentionally limit their freedoms in order to avoid discrediting the Gospel.
It is in the very types of passages referenced above (those about the behaviors of slaves and women) that we find these directions to the churches to be careful not to let their freedoms in Christ alienate people to the faith (Tit 2:5-10, 1 Pet 2:12). When these passages feel to us like they prop up civil rights violations, we need to remember that these same Scriptures emphasize that a slave is actually a free person in Christ – and that they should take the chance to get their freedom if it comes (1 Cor 7:21-22). We have an entire letter in the New Testament devoted to the message: for a Christian, it is the right thing to do to set your slave free. These passages also say that in God’s Kingdom, women are equal partners with men (1 Pet 3:7). But overarching all of these examples is a larger theme that holds them all together: in imitation of Jesus, Christians are to lay down their rights in order to increase the likelihood that others might come to know God. One of the main reasons that many of us have trouble understanding the issues in isolation is that we are products of a culture that has trained us to be obsessed with our rights. Not many of us are willing to say, with Paul: “I will give up any behavior that will put a stumbling block in front of another person” (1 Cor 8:13). But again and again, that’s the very thing that the Bible calls us to do. In Romans 14:13, Paul switches from declaring that he won’t do anything to put a stumbling block in front of someone else to commanding that Christians resolve not to do so. “Each of you must have the same mindset as Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, let go of His status of being equal with God, and became nothing” (Phil 2:5). When you have reached the status of ‘servant’ in the Kingdom of God, you cannot be promoted any higher. “And whoever among you wants to be the greatest, must become your slave…” (Matt 20:26). As I once heard a preacher say: “If you can’t say, ‘Amen’, at least say, ‘Ouch!’